Published Jul 15, 2020The Chicks were always firebrands; truth tellers with a sharp eye for social commentary. But in the relatively quiet years since 2006's Taking the Long Way – and following subtle, ongoing shifts in the politics of modern country music – the narrative surrounding the once world-dominating trio has changed. Their legacy, as both artists and agitators, now stands taller than ever.
It's with a new name (they've dropped the "Dixie" due to its slavery-era connotations) and a somewhat new sound that the Chicks return to America – an America that looks both shockingly different and frighteningly similar to the America of 2003. It makes sense that they'd come back now. It makes sense, too, that the album they've returned with is sharper, meaner, and more direct than anything they've made before.
Despite the Chicks' political track record — they were shunned by the country music establishment for opposing the Iraq War — Gaslighter is a divorce album before it's a political album. Ultimately, though, they're one and the same; this is a sterling example of the personal made political, of a band opening themselves to the world and finding that the world is hurting in much the same way.
Gaslighter is also a pop album before it's a country album – bass synths rumble, synthetic drums click and pop, keyboards glow beneath sky-high choruses. But those who feared the Chicks would be fully Antonoff'ed can rest easy – aside from the Capital-P pop of the first two tracks (and a couple welcome curveballs), the album sounds more like the Chicks of yesterday than expected. Still, while lyrically strong, the country-pop anthemia of "Sleep at Night" feels too big and anesthetized, like the uplifting soundtrack to a Mazda commercial. The gritty, winking "Texas Man" is a far better marriage of the band's traditional chops and Antonoff's poptimist vision.
Those who like their Chicks in ballad mode will be well-fed too. "Young Man," a tender message to singer Natalie Maines's sons; the gentle break-up song "Hope It's Something Good"; the reckoning of "My Best Friend's Wedding" – the trio can still stir the heartstrings. The Chicks have always had strong backbones, and Gaslighter shows that their conviction hasn't faded in their time away – if anything, they've only become more indignant, more willing to explore, more ready to speak. It's an inspiring, swift-footed return from a band who've always carried more than their fair share. With Gaslighter, the Chicks sound unburdened. (Columbia)